This is a tale of the days that followed Avan Weatherstrong's loss of the shapeshifter maid Kal'Hath. Prince Weatherstrong had never previously been given to strong moods, particularly not to sadness. In the case where one has just lost first love such tempestuous emotions are unavoidable.
Avan and Kal'Hath had journied together, fought evil together and had cultivated a love born out of mutual respect and absolute trust. Such a combination of emotions, promises and actions is rare in the world and the loss of such a love would possibly have overwhelmed a lesser man.
Prince Weatherstrong determined, even as he left behind the ragblossom tree marking the grave of Kal'Hath, that he must immediately work again in his continuing efforts to vanquish evil wherever he found it. By doing what is right he would honour the memory of Kal'Hath and remind himself of his destiny in life.
His opportunity to make a difference came up even before he left the Wylde Wood. A storm was blowing its way through the tall trees of the forest as Avan came upon a tree kingdom populated by a variety of sylphs and nymphs. As a prince, bearing a seal of the Hundred Kingdoms, Avan was received by the ruler of the kingdom, Lord Barkspry.
Avan had fully intended to take shelter from the storm with the Lord, thank him for his hospitality and be along his way when the weather had cleared. As Avan was shown to his room within the Lord's grand treedwelling he observed that preparations were being made for a celebration. It so happened that Lord Barkspry's daughter was to be married the very next day to the prince of a neighbouring kingdom.
Prince Weatherstrong was in entirely the wrong mood for a wedding celebration and hoped that the storm would be clear by morning. He retired to his room in order to rest. No sooner had he got his bearings in the large state room he had been allocated, within the bole of the major dwelling, than there was a knock upon the door.
Avan opened the door to see a young female nymph, an expression of troubled concern upon her face.
"You are the wandering prince to whom my father has offered his hospitality?" the nymph asked.
"Prince Avan of Weatherstrong, youngest of the nine, traveller upon the fringes, mage of the four winds," Avan replied, giving his full title, as was proper in formal situations.
"Princess Aurea Barkspry, first and only, faithful to the realm, most glorified bud upon the branches," the princess responded with her own title. "Prince Weatherstrong, I am in trouble, I believe you may be the only one who can help."
Upon hearing that sentence spoken Avan had a startling realisation. The weariness that he had felt bone-deep dissolved and he understood, in that instant, that it was not rest he required. The thought of helping another person instantly reinvigorated him, making him keen to know more.
Avan closed the door to his quarters and indicated that the princess should sit down.
"Please, Princess Barkspry," Avan said. "Tell me what you need."
"I do not believe that I will marry my betrothed tomorrow," Princess Barkspry said. "I believe that the man pretending to be my love is, in fact, a frog."
To many people the notion that a handsome prince could be a frog in disguise might stretch credulity. Of course, Avan Weatherstrong knew that for every thing that was there was the opposite thing also. A prince could be transformed into a frog, the common knowledge of the enchantment actually made it a fairly easy piece of mischief to work. For the reverse to be achieved would be no more difficult, the same communal notion that eased the transition of monarchy into amphibian would actually assist in the achievement of the reverse enchantment.
"Why do you think this to be the case?" Avan asked, his voice gentle.
"The realm of Barkspry has, for the longest time had problems with attacks from a particularly nasty witch Lilith Snakescale. She wants to harness the power in the roots of the major dwelling for her own dark purposes. We have managed to repel three separate attacks from lizard men, trolls and other creatures Lilith has bent to her will. I do not think she is content to try the direct approach again. I believe she intends to usurp the throne by marrying me to a puppet under her control."
"I understand your concerns," Avan said carefully. "But without any actual evidence is it not possible this is just a particularly bad manifestation of wedding nerves?"
"I know one thing," Princess Barkspry said. "My beloved Prince Azureleaf is a keen bowman, he never misses a day's archery practice, until about three weeks ago, he came back from the shooting range and hasn't returned to it since."
"He might be too busy preparing for the wedding," Avan pointed out.
"It could be, but he has also completely avoided contact with me in that time, we used to speak every day," the princess said. "It is a rare thing in a royal match for there to be genuine love and affection but this is what had grown between my prince and I. I do not believe this change in character has an innocent explanation."
"Maybe not," Avan said. "Your wedding day is tomorrow, why did you wait until I arrived to tell anyone of your concerns? Now you have, why did you choose me?"
"You are not the first person I chose," the princess said. "When I first became worried, just over a week ago, when I had not seen Larix for nearly five whole days, I went and confided in Petunia, my Lady's Maid. Petunia has been with me since I was born, she used to be my nanny, there is no one in the world I trust more than her. She said she would speak with Larix, find out what was happening. She went to see him that afternoon, that is the last anyone here in Barkspry has seen of her to this day.
"When Petunia went missing I went to the chief knight here at the major dwelling, he sent a soldier to look for Petunia. After three days he was found in the woods, savaged by a bear."
"So, you believe that the people of the realm are being watched, prevented from interfering?" Avan asked.
"I hope that, as you are just passing by, whatever enchantment may have cursed my fellow Sprys has not similarly afflicted you," the princess replied. "Otherwise I may, unfortunately, have doomed you as well."
"Death and I have an understanding," Avan said. "I do not believe that here is where we are next appointed to meet."
"So," Princess Barkspry said. "Will you help?"
"I am here taking advantage of your father's hospitality," Avan said. "I can hardly refuse. Besides, I have experienced too much sadness recently. I need occupation for my mind. If I can assist in the resolution of a matter involving true love then so much the better."
Thus, the princess pleased and Avan informed of the situation the pair went their separate ways. As Lilith Snakescale, if the prince's strange humour was her responsibility, had shifted her tactics from open hostility to silent coup Avan determined to meet her tactics appropriately.
Avan was not used to working an invisibility spell, he preferred to be direct in his dealings with friend and enemy alike. In this case the working would be a matter of discretion and good manners, in addition to being a battle strategy. Even so, Avan was dismayed to note that his working was not subtle enough to completely conceal him, he, rather appeared as a faint ghostly image before a looking glass. A further enchantment that coloured all the visible parts of his body, those that were caught in the strongest light, a dark grey and he was ready to begin his investigation.
Walking around the dwelling grounds Avan took the opportunity to familiarise himself with his new aspect, to minimise the chances of being spotted later on. He found that if he simply tried to stay out of people's way and was attentive to changes in the focus of those nearby he was as near to invisible as made no difference.
Once he was confident that he could move swiftly and silently about the major dwelling he proceeded to the guest branches of the tree and sought out Prince Azureleaf's quarters. The investigation was temporarily thwarted when Avan found the rooms empty upon his arrival. Avan took the opportunity to examine the prince's rooms and noted, with some interest, the large bathing pool, filled even whilst the room was empty. Several lily pads floated on the surface of the pool's water. Unusual decoration, unless it was intended to invoke a less domestic environment.
While Prince Weatherstrong was considering the pool the idea occurred to him that, if the prince really were a frog in disguise, the transformative element would possibly leave some kind of detectable residue behind. For a frog to be completely transformed into a copy of the prince would probably require the use of some heavily enchanted item. A spell such as Avan's cloaking enchantment could wear off at the wrong moment, ruining the plan.
Avan worked a subtle vision cantrip allowing him to spot patterns of heavy enchantment and, sure enough, a web of gold appeared in the room at around waist height, the trail of the item as it followed the prince back and forth about his business.
Avan followed the golden thread out of the room. Unfortunately, given three weeks, the impostor had gone in several directions out of the room about his business in the major dwelling. Avan followed the thread that seemed the brightest, hoping it would lead him to the impostor's location.
The thread wound through several passages away from the main throughfares of the major dwelling. It appeared that the impostor was about stealthy business himself. Eventually the trail led down to a staircase leading below the roots of the major dwelling deep under the earth.
The thread continued on its path through an underground drainage network built to help irrigate the dwellings of Leafspry. A door in one wall stood open and the thread continued on into a natural fissure in the earth and down in to a dark cave.
It was here that Avan found the impostor, and also the prince, chained up in a cage suspended from the vaulted ceiling of the cave. A complex witch's altar was set up to one side of the cave, the impostor stood before it conversing with a woman with light blue-purple skin, presumably Lilith Snakescale.
"I did not summon you here to complain about dry skin," the witch complained to her servant. "I summoned you here to receive the working that I have laboured hard to complete this last month."
"I am sorry mother," the impostor said. "It has just been so long since I have immersed my self in water and sung the brook's refrain."
Lilith thrust her face towards the impostor, her yellow eyes flashing with barely contained anger.
"Find the part of this face that cares about your folk tunes," she said. "Oh, that's right, you can't because there isn't any such part. Now, pay attention."
Lilith drew her self up to her full height and reached into a cauldron bubbling away to the side of the altar. From it she withdrew a silver short sword. Light rflecting off the blade's surface was tinted an odd green.
"This is a perfect replica of the Azureleaf blade, the ceremonial sword used by the prince's family. The only difference is that this carries with it the curse of blackest night."
Avan knew the curse of blackest night. If someone were killed with a weapon steeped in this darkest magic the withering power of the curse would reach out into the branches of the victim's family tree erasing not just the living members of the family but also cutting the ancestors out of time entirely.
"You marry the princess," Lilith explained to the impostor. "Then, on the wedding night plunge this sword into her heart. You will still be the regent of this place in the absence of Lord Leafspry, but as no one will remember Lord Leafspry or any of his kin even existed you will be not only the sole ruler of Leafspry but also the heir to the kingdom of Azureleaf. Then all you have to do is kill Lord Azureleaf and one-fifth of the Wylde Wood belongs to me."
It was a plan as ambitious as it was cruel, Avan had heard enough.
"I'm afraid," he said, casting off the shadow enchantment, "that I cannot allow that to happen."
"Who is this?" Lilith screeched. "I told you to make sure you were not followed, imbecile."
"Wherever such evil is being worked," Avan said, drawing his own sword, "the weave has a way of ensuring it is uncovered, before too much damage can be done."
"You seek to skewer me on that pathetic blade?" the witch demanded haughtily. "You clearly do not know the nature of Lilith Snakescale."
With that the witch appeared to blow out her cheeks. Her head broadened and flattened, her skin's strange hue deepened, scales became evident across her smooth blue-white skin. Before long the witch had entirely transformed into a gigantic serpent, at least forty feet in length, her body filling the cave. The gigantic flat head of the snake sunk down to look into Avan's eyes.
"Go ahead," said the serpent, her voice high with hysteria. "Give it your best shot."
Having dealt with creatures on a similar scale before Avan knew that he had to pick his moves carefully. He swung the sword at the serpent's eye as Lilith opened her jaws wide to swallow the prince whole. Knowing that this was the serpent-witch's likely opening strike Avan revealed that his swing had been a feint. He twisted his wrist and jumped up into the open jaw intending to thrust his own sword through the roof of Lilith's mouth and into her serpent brain.
The plan suffered a setback when Avan's sword skidded off the serpent's skull, the blade ringing with the impact so hard it shattered. Avan leaped quickly out of the mouth as the jaws clamped shut, now completely without a weapon of his own.
"Didn't I mention?" Lilith screeched. "My bones are made of hardest steel, no sword can cut or shatter them. Now, stay still, showing my true face always makes me hungry."
Avan had no choice but to run as the giant serpent's head ploughed forward through the cave intent on catching him in its giant mouth. The snake was swift and Avan was being forced to react, he was being given no time to turn the tide of battle to his favour.
In desperation he cut to his right heading for the lever that kept the real Prince Azureleaf's cage suspended near the ceiling. He pulled it down before reversing direction and running for the centre of the cave past the open, venom dripping, jaws of the serpent to its left hand side. The snake's body flexed and the head was bearing down on Avan once again.
Avan dove forward underneath the falling cage and prayed to whichever gods might currently be both listening and in a benevolent mood that the last thing he did would not be to skid along the floor before being swallowed by a gigantic snake.
In fact, it wasn't. As the snake's head ploughed forward, intent upon its regal snack, it completely failed to note the falling lump of heavy metalwork above it. The cage bounced off Lilith's head, stunning her and bringing her charge to a halt.
Now was Avan's only chance to turn the tide of battle. He surveyed the scene around him, mostly filled with the shining blue purple scales of the giant snake that was trying to turn him into a late evening supper. The only exceptional feature in this landscape of sinuous serpentine muscle was the forlorn and confused figure of the impostor prince, still clutching on to the sword of blackest night.
The severity of the blade's curse was not one that Avan wished to be involved with, but at that moment he had little choice. He ran over to the imposter and wrestled the sword from his flimsy grasp. Without even thinking Avan spun and sent the sword flying in the direction of Lilith's head.
There was no point trying to penetrate the skull, he knew that now. His only option was to do what it had looked like he was going to in the first place. As the sword of blackest night left his hand Avan pushed it straight, swift and true with a little inertial charm and the sword plunged through the serpent's eye and on into the centre of Lilith's head.
The result was immediate and dramatic. Lilith Snakescale, and the blade she had enchanted, were instantly enveloped in oily shadows, the shadows shrunk to nothing in an instant leaving the cave empty of everything that had been present save for the two princes, Weatherstrong and Azureleaf, and a very confused looking frog.
The princess was united with her love and the wedding went off without a hitch. In fact, the kingdom Avan emerged into was a little wealthier than the one he had first arrived at as the money spent defending the kingdom from Lilith Snakescale had now, retrospectively, been put to better uses.
Avan was concerned that there would be some consequence to his use of the cursed blade, but as that had presented itself as the only option in his desperate fight he had to trust that the forces of the weave and wheel would see fit not to burden him with too heavy a price. Indeed there was a price for Avan to pay for his actions, how high the price is something you will have to judge for yourself another time for this tale is at its end.